At the request of the French Presidency of the Council of the EU, in the opinion on Food security and sustainable food systems adopted at its plenary session on 19 January 2022, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) identified the key levers for sustainable and competitive EU food production and for reducing dependence on imports while increasing the EU's protein autonomy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had unprecedented consequences for society and the economy. If, on the one hand, it has revealed the agri-food sector's resilience, on the other hand it also highlighted substantial inequalities in the area of access to food, prompting a reflection on the right to food and food democracy. It is time to take on board the lessons learned. Access to healthy, sustainable, affordable and accessible food for all EU citizens is crucial. Europe and the world have to deliver food and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases for generating food security for future generations are not compromised.
While the European Green Deal (EGD) offers an opportunity to reaffirm the "social food contract" between the EU and its citizens through the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategy principles, much still remains to be done.
The Commission proposes too few concrete actions to strengthen the agri-food sector and farmers and workers' income, and to promote fair prices and the value of food, stressed the co-rapporteur, Peter Schmidt.
According to a report by the Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) published in August 2021, those strategies could lead to between 10% and 15% less EU production, a decrease in farmers' income, an increase in prices and a parallel increase in imports.
A truly integrated EU food policy approach is therefore needed to achieve food security and sustainability, as advocated for by the EESC, Mr Schmidt added.
Back in 2017, the EESC was the first EU institution to call for a comprehensive food policy in the EU, with the aim of fostering healthy diets from sustainable food systems, linking agriculture to nutrition and ecosystem services and ensuring supply chains that safeguard public health for all EU citizens.
For a comprehensive food policy to be truly relevant for European consumers, it is essential that the price and quality of food produced sustainably in the EU is competitive. This means that the European agri-food sector is able to deliver food for the consumers at prices that include extra costs for criteria such as sustainability, animal welfare, higher input costs, food safety and nutritional value, but also a fair return for farmers, while at the same time maintaining its position as the preferred choice for the vast majority of consumers.
As highlighted by the rapporteur for the opinion, Arnold Puech d'Alissac,…
fostering an open strategic autonomy, ensuring reciprocity of trade standards, promoting research, enhancing digitalisation, developing innovative technologies and seeds and facilitating access to training for farmers on these new technologies are among the key levers for safeguarding the competitiveness of European producers.
The EU must also improve its protein autonomy, he continued. As described in the EESC opinion, imports of soybeans from third countries can be responsible for deforestation, forest degradation and the destruction of natural ecosystems in certain producing countries. Greater protein autonomy is therefore desirable from all points of view. Enhancing EU production of legumes and pulses with high protein content and of oilseed and oilseed cake would benefit EU farmers and have a positive impact on climate, biodiversity and the environment.
The EESC's next step will be to develop a proposal for a strategy to achieve open autonomy in the area of sustainable protein and plant oil in the EU by analysing the potential of EU‑grown plants, EU aquaculture, sustainable and extensive livestock breeding and other protein sources such as insects, algae and urban food systems.